Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Through a Glass Darkly


Having devoted a lifetime to the study of economics, Professor Robert Heilbroner has concluded that economics is really very complicated and even mystifying. In a discussion on inflation, Heilbroner explained why economists do not agree among themselves. He said that such economic issues as the nature of money, the nature of value, prices, costs, and incomes are very perplexing things. There is a great deal of abstraction mixed up in the raw material of the economy because it is not a machine. Conseguently, people supply imagination to fill in the parts they can't see to provide coherence and structure. Heilbroner concluded:

People on the left tend to structure the economy in ways that magnify its self-destructive propensities, if you will, its end-of-the-world propensities. People on the right tend to structure the parts of the economy in terms of self-feeding, self-sustaining, growing propensities. And so the old business about whether you see the glass half full or half empty affects economists just as much as it affects doctors, for example, or professionals of various kinds. And economists build their models and make their forecasts, they can't help but, informed by wishes, by hopes, which then lead them to different conclusions from exactly the same data base ("Why Can't We Stop Inflation?": Parts I-IV, Ideas, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, November 1982, p. 41).

 A New Religion?

In another context, Heilbroner has ventured some surprising predictions about the problems and future prospects of the economy. In Business Civilization in Decline (1976) he explains that the crisis of capitalism, now a topic of concern to many, is a problem of maturity and success. Capitalism goes through various phases: markets are saturated, investment possibilities decline, inflation grows and so does unemployment. Energy supplies and resources are depleted while environmental pollution mounts. Inevitably, predicts Heilbroner, solutions will have to be found in the convergence of socialism and capitalism, i.e., a transition from the present welfare capitalism to "planned capitalism." In this connection he speaks of the "religion" of statism and foresees "the elevation of the collective and communal destiny of man to the forefront of public consciousness, and the absolute subordination of private interests to public reguirements. Whether this will be consistent with or conducive to political and intellectual liberties in general it is difficult to say" (p. 120).

"Planned capitalism"? Yes, that's what Heilbroner writes, but isn't this a contradiction in terms? Capitalism stands for individual initiative and free markets. "Planned" capitalism necessitates the involvement of a strong central (governmental) authority. Here, apparently, is an attempt to pour new meaning into old words, but with very confusing results.

The foregoing applies even more to Heilbroner's remarks about the religion of statism and his casual suggestion that political and intellectual liberties may not survive. Such advice is the result of spiritual bankruptcy. It should be vigorously repudiated by all who believe, on the basis of Christian insights, that political, intellectual, and all other liberties, are indispensable to the well-being of society, and must therefore be treasured and protected. This notion of freedom has been of inestimable value for Western civilization and its maintenance is first of all a matter of human responsibility and human choices—not the outcome of inexorable historical forces, as Heilbroner implies.


This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment